HR Excellence Awards 2023 Singapore
Words matter: How to use inclusive language in the workplace

Words matter: How to use inclusive language in the workplace


Many workplaces struggle with ingrained language which is no longer inclusive – for example, many business letters still start with ‘Dear Sir’. Washrooms continue to have just two symbols, while emails start with ‘hi guys’ by default. How do businesses improve language use in the workplace? In this feature, Arina Sofiah speaks to HR leaders and finds out:

  • Twitter’s efforts on getting teams to attend training on why words matter;
  • Skyworks Solutions' emphasis on being sensitive to employees’ personal situation; and
  • Unexpected everyday phrases to be mindful of.

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While the concepts of diversity and inclusivity may have been around in society for a long time, the support and emphasis around them is a much newer process for businesses. With the rapid globalisation of the working world, more and more people now have access to new cultures, traditions, ways of thinking, and environments.

An increasingly diverse workforce demands change from old norms. Organisations need to adapt. One of the easiest - yet most overlooked - ways to do so is through inclusive language.

Words matter. Communication is one of the most essential ways to help everyone feel valued, acknowledged, and respected, as well as create a sense of belonging in teams and organisations.

Many workplaces struggle with ingrained language which is no longer inclusive – for example, many business letters still start with ‘Dear Sir’. Washrooms continue to have just two symbols, while emails start with ‘hi guys’ by default. How do businesses improve language use in the workplace come 2022 and beyond? In this feature, we speak to HR leaders and find out.

CASE STUDY: Create psychological safety instead of going into gender specifics

karenlim quote

Karen Lim, Head of Human Resources, Asia Pacific Region, Skyworks Solutions, emphasises the importance of empathy for a productive and fulfilling employee experience.

Q With your experience as an HR leader, how do you believe inclusive language at work can impact employees or the organisation? Why is inclusive language so important?

A: I believe that inclusive leadership is highly critical, especially when we are operating in an international capacity. It's very important for leaders and people managers to have the ability to communicate inclusively to all employees regardless of rank. They need to be sensitive in their day-to-day language used across all levels.

As a very simple rule of thumb, talking about inclusive language, when we address an audience or our teams, we can use language like, “hello, everybody”, “hello, everyone”.

It is important not to go into gender specifics, rather the focus is on making sure that everybody feels psychologically safe. If employees feel safe to speak up and engage with managers and leaders, it helps make their day-to-day work more productive and fulfilling, building a more engaged environment, and a seamless employee experience.

Q With such a diverse and large reach across the globe, how do you adapt these practices to each market, to ensure you're being respectful of each culture?

A: It's very important to have empathy in our day-to-day work and across engagements. We are in an environment whereby Skyworks has operators, technicians, and engineers, as well as I partner with leaders across Asia. But the moment you anchor into conversations, there can be very different employee scenarios — say, if I’m managing a conversation with an operator for example, I will be more sensitive to their personal work and family situation as most often, their family and close ones are not residing with them in Singapore.

It’s key to understand the employee’s personal circumstances during day-to-day work, and take them into consideration.

Leaders must be empathetic — because not all employees are able to operate in an environment where they are happily settled. I always remind myself to reflect: “How is the employee’s situation right now?”, even if it's a very senior leader. I don't assume that the employee whom I’ve engaged in a conversation would have those 30 minutes of time for me, so I have to also be very respectful in that manner.

Q Have you noticed remote working having had any effect on us being inclusive?

From my personal experience, largely no. Maybe it's because of how I bring myself to work every day. For example, when I first joined Skyworks, as a new HR leader, I wanted to introduce myself to my colleagues and employees with whom I will be partnering. It's very natural for me to turn on my video camera to have conversations, but I'm also okay if the other party has their cameras off. We'll just take the first few seconds to touch base on what they are comfortable with. I always give them the choice, and always remind myself that we have to be respectful.

We’re operating in such a way that, given the past 18-20 months, all of us are, in a way, Zoom-fatigued or Teams-fatigued. People recognise that we’re all fighting against a worldwide pandemic.

So regardless if you’re meeting a person face-to-face, or meeting the person virtually over videos or not, I think it's fine. I always make a joke with the team — I say, “Are you all ready to turn on the camera?” And I usually give some time for them to warm up. But of course, there has to be a meaningful activity involved when we do so.

Having said that, I think it's important to remain connected. For example, the team is quite used to the way I run the meetings. You need to kind of inject some fun into them and make things a little bit more light-hearted.

At the same time, be respectful of everyone's environment because some colleagues may not be ready to turn on their cameras. They may have a busy setting at home - noisy children or tending to their elderly grandparents.

It can be really very overwhelming and I don't expect employees to have their videos on all the time.

CASE STUDY: Build an inclusive culture for employees to bring their authentic selves to work

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Preet Grewal, Head of Inclusion and Diversity (I&D), JAPAC, Twitter shares on conscious efforts undertaken to be more mindful and inclusive.

Q How does inclusive language, or the lack thereof, impact employees? How does it affect an organisation as a whole?

A: Words matter, and intentional inclusive language aims to exclude no one. Inclusion is felt in the small moments and interactions between colleagues; and when an organisation builds an inclusive culture, employees can bring their authentic selves to work. So, using inclusive language is essential for creating an environment where everyone feels welcome and included.

At Twitter, we’re on a journey to becoming the world’s most inclusive and diverse tech company. Some examples of how we’re practicing inclusive language include:

  • Inclusive introductions used during presentations: At the beginning of meetings, presentations, or workshops, the speaker would introduce their name, pronouns, and also visual identity descriptors for the benefit of blind or visually impaired people.
  • Inclusive language in our code: In 2020, we started to move away from non-inclusive language such as “blacklist” and “sanity check”.
  • Normalising the use of pronouns: we regularly underscore the importance of normalising the use of pronouns. When a person uses an incorrect pronoun, it not only incorrectly addresses the other person but also creates a sense of exclusion, lack of consideration, and disrespect to the person’s identity.

Q Do share some inclusive language red flags – how to identify when you have an issue? How should leaders handle situations like these?

A: There are the obvious, for example, derogatory slurs and harmful terms that are often passed off as ‘jokes’. But there are also several commonly used terms and phrases that are more subtle in how they exclude various communities.

Let’s take the term ‘guys’. It’s seemingly innocuous, but has the potential to reinforce unconscious gender biases. Inclusive language would instead use ‘everyone’ or ‘team’.

Other phrases like ‘tone deaf’ or ‘lame’, often used to describe something that missed the mark, can perpetuate ableism. Similarly, referring to someone as ‘normal’ because they don’t have a disability implies that those who do are ‘abnormal’.

When leaders encounter situations like these, they should be an ally and point out that the language used wasn’t inclusive, and offer a better alternative. Cultivating an inclusive environment may not happen overnight, but every progress in the right direction is important.

Q How can leaders incorporate inclusive language into their daily lives to cultivate a more welcoming/encouraging work environment?

A: Leaders can learn more about inclusive language and encourage their teams to attend training too. For example, at Twitter, we offer training around why words matter and pronouns practice. They should also practice using inclusive language outside of their workplace, such as when presenting at external events or during meetings with external partners.

Beyond the intentional use of inclusive language, it’s important to remember that building an inclusive work environment takes time and sustained effort. To get more people on board, leaders would need to cultivate a culture of accountability and psychological safety so employees can engage in healthy conversations.

Q Do share your thoughts on some possible misconceptions - perhaps on what being inclusive means, or what it takes to be inclusive.

A: One of the most common misconceptions around inclusivity is that it’s an HR function when, everything in the company – whether it’s people policies, product policies, or external community engagement – should be seen through the I&D lens. Inclusion can only be achieved if it’s embedded into the company’s core values, so everyone has a role to play in creating this culture.

Another common mistake is equating diversity with inclusion. Diversity is a statement of facts, you either have a workforce that includes representation from a variety of communities, or you don’t. But to include is a verb. It takes action and accountability, for example in the form of policies, to enable inclusion.

Finally, often to be inclusive means leaning into discomfort and allowing space for difficult conversations to take place. For example, by creating opportunities or spaces for historically marginalised communities to share their experiences, or simply a place where people can learn from each other in a judgment-free zone.

Q Has inclusive language personally impacted you? How?

A: My family moved to Canada when I was fifteen, and I witnessed first-hand how language firmly singled us out as the ‘immigrant family’. From well-intended comments on how good my English was to being termed the ‘brown girl’ in a predominantly Caucasian school, language constantly made me aware of my status as an ‘outsider’.

But equally, I would never claim to be perfect in my own use of inclusive language - I’m still on my own journey of learning so that I don’t inadvertently perpetuate oppressive language.

I’d be the first to admit, I still have to catch myself to make sure I don’t address an audience with ‘Hi guys’.

We all have habits and perceptions formed back in childhood, so I think the important thing to remember is that we need to be making conscious decisions in terms of our communication styles and language if we want to enhance a culture of inclusion and allyship - whether in the workplace or society as a whole.

Conclusion and key takeaways

Inclusive language is working its way into places beyond the working world. For instance, the sport of cricket has become more progressive in using gender-neutral language - the traditional term 'batsman' has now been replaced with the more inclusive 'batter'. With this change, all commentators and players are now using the new, progressive language – a small but highly effective change.

The world and how we communicate are constantly evolving. For a more productive and meaningful employee experience, leaders have to actively inculcate a more inclusive culture.

Justine Cooper, Head of Brook Graham, APAC for Pinsent Masons notes that diversity and inclusion are often used together, but it'll be worthy to take a moment to think about what these terms mean.

"When we talk about diversity we are referring to all the many ways in which we differ, that includes both the visible dimensions – such as gender, skin colour, and age – as well as the invisible dimensions such as thinking styles and personal beliefs. It is the myriad collection of differences that makes each of us wonderfully unique. Inclusion is about creating an environment where these differences are valued, and positively embraced, where everyone feels valued, respected, and heard.

"Many organisations with best intentions focus on the differences, perhaps striving to increase under-representation. While there is absolutely still a need to address the under-representation that exists in organisations across every industry, to create sustainably diverse and inclusive cultures it is essential to focus on both how to attract and retain diverse talent, as well as how to create the working environment where everyone can thrive and bring their best selves."

Adding to this, learning from our interviewee Grewal, being mindful of our words is a simple way to start. Phrases such as 'sanity check' or 'lame' may seem innocuous, but could potentially be hurtful. Simple efforts that may not have crossed our minds such as inclusive introductions used during presentations can also contribute to more inclusive work culture. Ingraining such subtle things may not lead to an entirely inclusive culture overnight, but every progress in the right direction is important, she reminds us.

Similarly, Lim emphasises empathy and understanding one another as the bases of being inclusive. Leaders should constantly remind themselves to reflect and consider employees’ situations when interacting. Employees will feel acknowledged and valued, allowing for a more connected and engaging workplace, as she firmly believes.

Lead photo / 123RF
Interviewee photos / Provided

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